Welcome to 2018 (it couldn’t be worse than 2017…)

Let’s not dwell on 2017: far too much Trump and Brexit. Enough said. At the very end of October I had my hip replacement operation and afterwards I attacked the business of recovery very energetically, going for long walks, first with two crutches, then with two sticks, and finally with one stick. It was at the one stick stage, early on the morning of Sunday December 3rd. I started to drift out of the mists of deep sleep and for some reason I stretched my left leg. I don’t know why I did it (I was at best semi-conscious), but suddenly there was a sharp pain and I knew I had dislocated the hip. Maisie rose to the occasion, as I knew she would, and eventually an ambulance arrived. Meanwhile, if I made the smallest move the pain would be intense. Getting off the bed onto the stretcher-chair was the most painful experience of my entire life, and that’s despite pain killer pills and gas-and-air anaesthetic. The two ambulance men were superb. During the drive to King’s Lynn Hospital the joint must have relocated, because I was able to twitch my toes when I arrived in casualty. An hour later I could lift my foot, and after a couple of hours I could sit up. At the end of the day I could manage a few paces from my wheelchair to the car. They took an X-ray and one of the busy casualty doctors pronounced me fit, with no nerves or cartilage trapped inside the prosthetic joint. Phew!

That set me back at least a week. But by December 15th I was able to drive again – and I can’t tell you how much that lifted my morale. Independence was slowly returning. I’m writing this on January 22nd (‘Blue Monday’), which I gather is meant to be the most depressing day of the year (so some tongue-in-cheek academics have told us) and I’m feeling full of beans – and quite literally, because Maisie cooked a wonderful meal last night of lamb shank with cannellini beans (dried, but from the garden) and sprouts, in an oniony/garlic sauce. Every ingredient was from the farm, or garden – lots of taste and no plastic wrapping!

Over Christmas we relaxed and probably ate and drank rather too much. But what the hell. I did lots of walking, but less vigorously than before the dislocation. As usual we did one of Mike Jupp’s excellent 1000-piece jig-saw puzzles, I Love Autumn, which he sent us last year and very kindly signed (on the box, not individual pieces!). It was very difficult to do and I think it’s his best puzzle to date. So do buy one if you can – you certainly won’t be bored and you’ll love the details, such as the horrible drones… Need I say more?

Mike Jupp I Love Autumn

From January 1st I resolved to get back to work on my current book, which is about the Fens (surprise, surprise). And things went well: I managed to complete another two chapters, before I was overtaken by those jobs that suddenly appear when a new book is about to be launched. My latest for Penguin comes out on March 1st and I’ll discuss it here, nearer the time. But in the past few days/weeks I’ve been checking proofs and very soon I’m off to London to record the audio book, which should be fun. Incidentally, I gave up using a stick towards the end of the first week of the New Year because I was having trouble in re-establishing a limpless walk. It’s all about rhythm – which I can’t do if there’s a stick in my hand. But I have to be very careful indeed if the ground’s wet, as I don’t want to slip over and fall. I couldn’t stand that pain for a second time.

I love visiting churches and on my 73rd birthday (January 13th) we went up the road to the small market town, or large village, of Heckington. The town itself is not particularly spectacular, but several old buildings do survive and the place still retains its distinctive Lincolnshire feel and has avoided the horrible gentrification that is, alas, such a feature of so many comparably-sized towns in the Cotswolds. To be honest, I quite like it if I drive through a village and a front garden has a wrecked car in it, another is used for parking a disc-harrow, and a third is full of chickens who stray everywhere. That’s what the villages are like around where I live. They’re real. But I digress: back to the subject I’m meant to be writing about.

Maisie knew I liked visiting churches and she was also aware that I was getting a bit stir-crazy: I needed to get out and about. So she leafed through Pevsner’s Lincolnshire and came up with Heckington, which I must confess I’d seen from the outside, but only when passing through, and in a car. I still can’t understand why I had never seen it properly. Quite simply, it’s a masterpiece and I plan to revisit in the summer, when daylight is brighter, to view the interior, which was shrouded in gloom. Most English churches are an architectural mish-mash, wherein lies their charm, but every so often it is good to see one in a single style. Often single-style churches are small and either early or late, Norman or Victorian. But St. Andrew’s Church, Heckington couldn’t be more different. It was built in the early 14th century, probably in the 1320s and ‘30s, with the chancel rebuilt in the ‘40s. So it’s all in the Decorated style, which for my money is the finest of all – with the possible exception of the uniquely English late Perpendicular of places like Kings College Chapel, Cambridge, and St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, whose fan vaulting and huge windows seem to transcend mere architecture.

The interior of St. Andrew’s, with the exception of the later pews, is what King Edward III would have seen when he visited, around 1330. To give you a flavour of this superb building and the many statues and gargoyles that adorn it, I’ve included four pictures: the first of the tower and nave, the second of the south porch, the third of two gargoyles, and the fourth of the superb tracery of the East Window. Do visit of you can. Normally I agree with Simon Jenkins’ award of stars, but he gives it ****, his second-best category. I’d have given it *****.

Heckington tower GV

Heckington porch

Heckington gargoyles

Heckington East window

During the second week of January my hip was feeling better, I’d abandoned the stick and determined to get going in the garden. I did various mainly small jobs, then on January 18th the sun came out (a rare event this January) and revealed the best display of hazel catkins I can recall. The Nut Walk looked stunning and if the prolific catkins are anything to go by, there’ll be a big crop of nuts in the autumn. Having taken the photo, I picked up my secateurs and loppers and began cutting-back the pleached limes – a job I normally like to get done over Christmas. It felt so good to be getting back to work again.

Hazel catkins

Pleaching

Then, just three days after I started work on the limes, we were hit by a vicious series of snow and sleet storms. They ended in time for Blue Monday, which made me, and surely all gardeners, feel very bright and chirpy. I hope you have a wonderful 2018.

Snow Jan 21st

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